BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE DISGRACED MARTYR TRILOGY: WHY I’M AGAINST WORLDBUILDING
As always, click the link in the sidebar/footer ads or this one right here to pre-order THE HIEROPHANT’S DAUGHTER, first in an LGBTQ+ cyberpunk/horror trilogy. Thanks for your patience as we’ve worked to put the finish touches on booklaunch preparations; more interpretive essays will be on the way soon, including potential essays about The Promised Neverland and Ancient Magus’s Bride.
Beyond almost any element of The Disgraced Martyr Trilogy, early reviewers have praised the worldbuilding. For instance, Mark Martinico wrote, in his extremely kind review of The Hierophant’s Daughter (May 19th, 2019):
In modern science fiction and fantasy, with some authors it’s hard to really picture the world the story takes place in, beyond the events of the story. And if we think too much about the workings of that world, it all falls apart, because the author never fully fleshed it out in the first place.
However, in some lucky instances, we as readers may stumble upon an author who dreams up a complex, fully functioning world and society, vastly removed from our own, who imagines it all the way down to trivial details, then once the world is created, sets about telling a tale (or series of tales) within that world.
Extremely kind. I’m always touched by such generous reviews and the first book of The DMT has already received many more than I expected to have collected with three months still between me and the publication of the book. Almost thirty reviews in and many people have praised the grasp I had on the mechanics of this or that thing before I went in.
This is all very flattering and very kind, but I have to admit, I’m a little bemused to think that my readers now and in the future will read this trilogy and picture me laboring for hours over the socioeconomic nuances of Earth circa 4042 CE/1997 AL. For some reason in my vision of their vision of this, I have a little metal compass in my hand and am painstakingly going over maps, outlines, etc.
Well, I did go over maps—one afternoon, about three weeks after the second drafts of all three books were finished. That is to say, about a year and two months after I started writing. This was initially with an eye toward hiring a cartographer to help me draw out a map for readers, but it became prohibitively expensive and imminently impractical because to accomplish such a thing on the level of detail I wanted, I would have had to go painstakingly country by country in certain unstable regions of the world and try to discern where they would go in this fictional one. And I’m pretty controlling and detailed, but let me let you in on a dirty little secret, readers, that I think shouldn’t stay secret any longer:
I hate worldbuilding.
I absolutely hate it. It is a waste of my time, and if you’re the sort of author who spends hours and hours and hours “worldbuilding” for the novel/series/comic you intend to write “soon”, then it is also most likely a waste of your time. Every moment you spend “worldbuilding” is a moment you could spend creating something you could share with an actual audience, rather than your friends on /r/worldbuilding or related forums. I’m sure you’re angry at me for saying this and I’m sure some of you are going to leave but I would strongly encourage you to at least take the time to investigate just why you’re insulted by what I’m saying—because, in my personal experience, when I feel a statement cutting me like that, it bears consideration.
As a sidebar, I’m not talking about D&D worldbuilding. Unless you work for Wizards of the Coast (or monetize a blog, etc), Dungeons and Dragons and the adventures you write for it is 99% likely to be your hobby and stay your hobby without becoming your livelihood. That means you can indulge in worldbuilding and frittering away at the functions of your universe, because unless your campaign is catching up to the amount of content you’ve created for it, you’re on nobody’s deadline but your own. So, Dungeon Masters, please feel free to put down your pitchforks and return to painting some awesome pewter miniature beholders.
This article is for everybody else, all the people with dreams of creating for a professional living, and regular readers should know I take this subject seriously, because I also hate writing about writing—at least, in a blog format. I’m more interested in theorizing about the spiritual and analyzing existing works of fiction for their esoteric themes, because that will draw audience members who might actually buy my books. The traditional advice to starting writers looking to build their online “platform”, that they should write little essays about “Writing Tips!” or whatever to attract an audience, is stupid and wrong. Those types of essays will only attract budding authors interested in developing and selling their own work; it will not attract readers interested in your work.
So, that’s also an apology for the regular readers. This essay is more for writers—or, for anybody who read The Disgraced Martyr Trilogy and became interested in the process of its development. That’s why this essay will be double-posted with another—if you’re a regular reader who’s not a writer, please feel free to check out my review of Supervert’s Apocalypse Burlesque.
All that said, why do I have such a hatred for worldbuilding? Because I have seen it destroy many good potential writers. A good friend of mine is very talented, both artistically and literarily, but he fritters away all of his creative time on worldbuilding a novel he’s been dreaming about for 10+ years now. He is never going to finish it, or, at least, not for a long time. His worldbuilding has become a private pleasure only; a hobby. My own father is in a position where he can and should be spending most of his time creating these stories he keeps telling me about—and instead every week I get to hear about how he is “fleshing out” this aspect or that aspect of his worldbuilding, and how he is “almost ready” to write this thing after what must be two or three years of working on it at this point. And, infrequently, I glimpse at the subreddit /r/worldbuilding and am disappointed to see so many people drawing this or that extremely detailed rendering or this or that extremely complex ecosystem for a book or other piece of media they’re “planning to write”.
This is wrong. So, so wrong. “But how am I supposed to start if I don’t know how x/y/z thing functions,” I hear some of you whining, clutching your stacks of half-filled notebooks to your sweaty breasts. “I can’t even write the first word if I don’t know that!”
You can. You just don’t want to. You know why? Because you can always edit. You can always find the true “first lines” later on, long after you’ve finished draft one—sometimes even after you’ve had it looked at by an editor. God knows that’s how it always works out for me.
When I started writing The Disgraced Martyr Trilogy, I not only thought it would be one novel—I did not know anything about it. Here was what I knew:
- I knew the names and rough relationships of four of the Holy Family members, the character of the Hierophant, and I think I knew that Dominia was a lesbian
- I knew cults were a big theme and that the Holy Family ran the biggest and most dangerous cult in its world
- I knew that they were a type of pseudo-vampire which focused more on flesh than on blood, but I didn’t want to call them ‘vampires’
- I knew a key plot detail of a side character in Book III, but I didn’t know how I would convey it or how it would become relevant, and still wouldn’t until the time was right to write
That’s it. Truth be told, I’m not even sure I knew Dominia was my main character until I started writing. Initial visions of this world came upon me in 2015, when I was getting ready to publish my first sellable novel, Delilah, My Woman—however, my writing focus at that time was split between ghostwriting for a few quick bucks, and developing my next work, which would someday be called The Lightning Stenography Device. Therefore, although I would infrequently envision snippets of the characters making up the Holy Family while listening to music on my morning walk, I simply couldn’t find the time or mental power to work with them. Sometime mid- to late-2016, however, the four aforementioned—Dominia, Cassandra, Cicero and Elijah—got names that would stick, along with another important non-Family side character who I had no idea about other than the vague notion I needed to be prepared to work them in.
Then, in 2017, with The LSD finished and edited, my boyfriend and I welcomed a pair of roommates into our house, and I became extraordinarily stressed. Being a very withdrawn person who needs to spend a lot of time in thought, I felt under immediate, immense pressure to be stuck in a house with three other people, and I could hardly imagine how I would have the time to do any of my own work. Yet, somehow, only a few weeks after they joined our home that April, one afternoon—not my usual writing time, which is first thing in the morning—I felt an immense, frantic pressure to write. The (now altered) first lines of The Hierophant’s Daughter flew into my head with such clarity and pressure that it seemed less a burst of inspiration than it did a call for help from the character the scene was about: Dominia. I hurried to my keyboard and began, sight unseen, to pound out the controversial first chapter of a bloody book which has proved both my finest work yet, and possibly my most divisive.
Now that you’ve seen the four things I knew before I started the novel, take a look at the things I figured out while writing the first pages:
- I learned Dominia was fleeing her country
- I learned she was doing it because her wife was already dead, and she was trying to bring her back
- I learned Dominia was a General
- I learned she was also something called a “Governess”, which I would not figure out for five more pages was something close to a handpicked version of the President of the United States
- I learned that her species of pseudo-vampire is called the martyr race
- I learned that I really enjoyed writing without knowing where this was going
I knew nothing at all about the events of the first chapter. I didn’t know about the character of René before I started Chapter 2 a few days later, and his name is quite literally the first word in that chapter. I knew nothing about the functions of cyborgans, I knew nothing about the character of Miki Soto, I knew nothing about the events of the plot between Dominia’s introduction and the scene I pictured as the ending, and I knew nothing about Basil. I did not even realize Dominia was an infamous war criminal until, while on a trip to the beautiful seaside town of Brookings, I pounded out the grim events which happen at the climax of Dominia’s ride on the Light Rail for the first time. I then understood not just who she was, but how dishonest she was. And that was another thing I did not know going in: I knew the names of the characters, but I did not know their true character, if you understand me.
Oh, and by the way—the scene that I pictured as the ending turned out to be the halfway point for the whole series.
Yet, somehow, despite knowing nothing, people seem to think I spent hours—days!—stooped over tables and charts, crunching numbers, maybe consulting psychics. And this worries me, because I don’t want impressionable young writers who enjoy this series to come out of it thinking they need to spend hours and hours and hours building the world they should just be writing. I think people look at writers like Tolkien and Lewis and get that sense, at least, and it’s wrong.
I suppose the one “benefit” to worldbuilding beforehand is that on your next read-through for editing, more things will “agree” with one another in terms of consistency and fewer items will need to be changed for that editing purpose—but you’re going to be editing other things anyway. The fact of the matter is that nobody’s first draft is good. Each book of The Disgraced Martyr Trilogy has had about 6 full edits between myself and my copyeditor. And you cannot imagine how different—yet strangely predictive—the first drafts were from the final ones.
Maybe saying all this ruins the myth of its creation for some people, but this series was written by intuition, and I was often breaking my own psyche down into characters symbolizing real life events which happened to me, either in the past or during the time of the writing. I’ve said before and I’ll say again that all fiction is psychic fact; I also recently wrote in an essay on the upcoming DMT blog tour that all fiction is a form of self-parody. By all this, I mean that all fiction is a form of Jungian active imagination, and reflective of the contents of the author’s psyche. This is inevitable in solo works like novels or a Wagner symphony. All creation mimics, breaks down and explores the creator’s internal state whether the creator wants it that way or not. In this sense, undo emphasis on worldbuilding beforehand does a disservice, and maybe even prevents, the author from authentic, in-the-moment emotional exploration and catharsis which might really take their book from “yeah, it was good” to “holy shit, this is incredible.”
Much, much of that depth and that self-analysis occurs in subsequent drafts, rather than the first. The second draft is used for heavy-duty alterations, because generally by the end of the first draft I already know the biggest changes I’ll be making—for instance, with the DMT, I deleted an entire character who no longer exists in the trilogy, I deleted an object in Dominia’s possession which no longer served a purpose in my clearer envisioning of the plot, and I deleted and replaced the entire climax of Book I, because it needed to be rewritten entirely once I realized I was dealing with a trilogy rather than one book the size of The LSD.
Maybe some people might feel like I could have avoided all of this if I had done worldbuilding beforehand, but the fact of the matter is that draft 2 is always a massive overhaul. At least one to two scenes in the average novel will require somewhat hefty adjustment or total rewriting if the writer is really interested in bringing the best out of the book. But by skipping the worldbuilding and doing it during my writing, I saved myself months of work. I began The Disgraced Martyr Trilogy’s first draft in April of 2017 and finished it January of 2018. I then spent a few weeks cooling off before the greater overhaul draft, which took, if I recall correctly, from late February through mid May of 2018. I began another draft to get it editor-ready—this is the draft I read aloud to myself to capture and hone the sound of the piece—and than my editor edited it for its fourth revision. I went through and approved all her edits after receiving the manuscripts in a fifth-ish revision, and then, when the ARCs arrive, I read them through one more time for a sixth and final check for last typos or fine-toothed comb type consistency mistakes.
That is six chances and two years to worldbuild during the process of writing, and at the end of that two years I had the privilege and delight of having written a very exciting trilogy with a bevvy of wonderful characters and a thrilling plot even I couldn’t have predicted. How long have you spent worldbuilding without writing?
Worldbuilding should be done in the moment. Go blind. See what it feels like. Write as far as you can and then when you have a question, when you need a term or when you need to think of a mechanic, pause and think about it. Maybe if it’s hard that’s where you take a break for a day and keep an eye out for inspiration or useful articles on the subject you’re dealing with. But then get right back to it, and, if you have to, make up some bullshit that you’ll change later on. You’ve got to be willing to change everything in future drafts. Buddha says “No attachments,” Stephen King says “Kill your darlings,” the Internet memes say, “Delete fucking everything.” I agree with all of that. You need to write with an eye for what is in service to the story, and the reader’s understanding of that story—and you need to understand when it’s important to hide information, and how to go about doing that in a way that’s satisfying to the reader when the final reveal comes along. The temptation to just spill pages and pages of background info when you’ve been toiling on the logistics of your world for months is far too strong. Asking yourself questions and exploring the answers as they organically arise in the plot is a great way to worldbuild while writing and to develop a pace pleasing to your intended audience.
Another point I’d like to make is that undo emphasis on worldbuilding sometimes robs characters of their liveliness. I prefer to do things the other way around: I let my imagination introduce me to lively, plastic, exciting characters representing various things or plot devices I need as I need them, and I allow those characters’ interactions to naturally expand the world for me as I find I personally have questions about it. Extended pre-writing periods of “character development” are another huge mistake I see otherwise brilliant potential writers make—they feel the strong need to get to know and be comfortable with a character before they start to write, and I understand, because I’ve been there, too.
For characters, I say this. You need to find one trait you have in common with every character you write. That will help you, even if slightly, to comprehend their motivations, and it will help you flesh them out. Furthermore, you need to become comfortable with the fact that the best way to discern someone’s character—in fiction and in real life—is by observing how they react to adversity. True character development is built by conflict; engaging fantasy or sci-fi worlds are built by well-developed characters. Oftentimes we don’t understand fully who our characters are until draft 2—and I didn’t understand something very crucial about Dominia until that final pre-editor draft. Someday, when Book III, The Lady’s Champion, has been released, I can talk about that freely—so maybe after January 9th, 2020, I can write some follow-up words on the subject of unreliable narrators. But until then, you can study The Disgraced Martyr Trilogy’s worldbuilding by pre-ordering your copy of The Hierophant’s Daughter before May 19th, and by keeping an eye on this site for more information about Book II, The General’s Bride, following August 14th of this year!
For the final details that you want to explore to flesh out your novels for readers—the maps, the timelines, whatever you think will help readers become oriented in and understand the mood of the world—I say you should save that for last, and let your stream of consciousness fill it in as you see fit. Around the time I was finishing edit 3 of Book I, I got to figuring that my readers would really need something to figure out the world. I’m glad I added it, because a lot of people were intimidated by the en media res opening of The Hierophant’s Daughter, and found a lot of solace in the timeline. But, I presented that timeline at the end of the book—not just because I feel it contains soft spoilers for the experience of reading Book I, but because I want readers to experience the book, and Dominia’s world, the way I did—the way the General does, every time we bring her journey to life by reading. I want readers to dive into the world of The Disgraced Martyr Trilogy half-blind, and terrified that all hope is lost. Because when all hope is lost, anything is possible—and when we know nothing, we are ready for the start of our fool’s journey.
M. F. Sullivan is the author of DELILAH, MY WOMAN (2015) and THE LIGHTNING STENOGRAPHY DEVICE (2018) in addition to THE DISGRACED MARTYR TRILOGY. Keep up with her work by following this page and be sure to pre-order THE HIEROPHANT’S DAUGHTER from Amazon, Barnes&Noble.com, or through your local indie bookseller.
We are doing a special giveaway for readers of this blog. Enter the below Rafflecopter contest for a chance to win The Hierophant’s Daughter…but be sure add it to your Wishlist, because only one lucky reader will win a signed copy plus a Holy Martyr Church t-shirt! You’ll find out if it’s you on May 14th, so be sure you’ve followed this blog and stay up to date with the latest Disgraced Martyr Trilogy news.